In a previous blog, I chuntered on about not wanting to be a travel snob, and how any travel was better than no travel at all. But why – if we’re lucky enough to have the means and opportunity in the first place – do we travel somewhere else to go on holiday in the first place? Why not just stay at home?
I think, for most of us, the answer is: escape. That’s what the folk who write travel ads think, isn’t it? Escape your work. Escape the commute. Escape the everyday clockwork tick-tock of your life.
And, despite that scene in Total Recall where the guy in Recall tells Arnie that the only thing you normally can’t escape is yourself, in reality most of us try to do that, too. Become the relaxed, ideal version of you that gets lost in the wood and trees of ordinary life: become the attentive partner, the fun parent, the party-leading friend we all know we are really, if only the traffic would unclog itself and her
from Inhuman Resources wasn’t on your back and the in-laws didn’t keep turning up unannounced.
And how do we try, at least, to escape? For a lot of us northern Europeans, it involves increased amounts of sunlight and heat in southern Europe. That bright ball in the sky does wonders for us our ancestors didn’t know about when they wandered away from the Mediterranean, certainly mood-wise.
Speaking of mood enhancers, alcohol is also frequently and liberally used. There’s nothing you can drink on a wet night in Bathgate – or Gothenburg, I shouldn’t wonder – that matches that first San Miguel of a fortnight in Benidorm, right?
Here’s the thing, though. For some of us that escape is to a known place, somewhere to go back year on year, carefully calibrated to be capable of delivering on price, food, comfort, lager selection, and like-minded people, from past experience.
For others, part of the escape is trying new things, new places, new experiences. Different strokes for different folks.
How different? Well for this trip, as in other trips to Spain, we’ve gone for a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. We’ve been to Seville 4 or 5 times now; but it’s got a big historic centre that we can stay in different bits of. We’d been to Cadiz for a day previously: staying there was new, but not that much of a stretch as we’d walked round most of the casco antiguo (Old Town) in the day trip.
We decided we’d go there because a) we didn’t want to stay in any one place for too long if we had the time to discover another one; b) we’d been to Extremadura before, and really liked the feel of the region; c) you could get there reasonably easily by public transport and d) it was what I call ‘deeper Spain,’ which is to say somewhere where very few English-speaking tourists fetch up, and therefore almost no one speaks English to you.
This last one is, I’ll admit, a bit selfish on my part. I’ve made learning Spanish one of my interests since my forties, and love to hear how the Spanish talk when they’re not just taking food and drink orders from you. Although a lot of my conversations do involve ordering food and drink, obviously. It would be rude not to.
So: roughly two hour train journey from Cadiz back to Seville; two hours lay over in which to get from the out of the centre Santa Justa to the bus station and grab something to eat; then two hours on the bus to Badajoz.
The town itself takes time to reveal its charms to us. By the time we get there it’s 3.30 on a hot afternoon, and the half hour walk from the bus station into the centre of town is long.
We discover the streets in Badajoz Old Town to be slightly misleading: it looks like they’re on a grid, but then each street meanders off square and you’re not quite where you thought you’d be at the end of it. Google maps is little help, dancing around the dot it says the hotel should be at, without actually getting us there. Give me a paper map any day.
It reminds me a bit of what the Spanish media said about Rajoy, the conservative prime minister from 2011 to 2018. He came from Galicia, in the north-west, and he was difficult to pin down: when you meet a gallego on the stairs, so they say, it’s impossible to tell if they’re going down them or up them. Which you could say about most politicians, mind you.
Anyway, when we emerge from our siesta – how is it that sitting on comfortable seats in trains and buses can still be tiring? – Badajoz turns out to be deep enough Spain. That thing I said a couple of blogs back about the Spanish eating times being a lot looser now? In Badajoz, not so much – they don’t even start serving you tapas till 8.30 at night, most places. We seem to be the only ones speaking English. I catch several of the locals giving us curious looks in a way we’d only previously experienced in the smaller town of Ubeda, up in the sierras above Granada.
So would I recommend it as a place to go? Looking back at the notes I made while there, I seem to have been a bit on the negative side. It is, perhaps, no more characterful than Merida or Caceres, the two other places in the region we’ve been to. The people are no more or less friendly than elsewhere in Spain.
But, to be fair, there are dozens of museums and galleries to visit – we managed one gallery, just when it was about to close as it turned out – and some characterful Moorish ruins to look at up the hill. The Hotel San Marcos is a really good value, friendly place to stay. And it’s certainly deeper Spain, if that’s what you’re looking for. If you hire a car, there’s lots of wetlands and such nearby, where you can watch all sorts of birdlife, or blast the hell out of it with a gun, according to taste.
Did we manage to escape? Yes, I think the visit to Badajoz helped to make the whole holiday unique, although Seville did feel welcomingly familiar when we came back for the last night there. Did I find the best version of myself? Well.
As I’ve probably said before, I’m a firm believer that speaking a foreign language is good for the brain. I find it opens the doors on dusty rooms in my mind; I unplugged from social media in Badajoz, and soon found, a trickle of new writing – songs, mostly – coming out. I’m not sure how that translates into me being a better person for everyone else though. You’d have to ask Alison.
I think though, on balance, it does. It’s a great feeling knowing that, for the next few days, the toughest call you have to make is what to have to eat next. I enjoy my current work so much there wasn’t the same need to escape it this time as previously: all the same, the feeling of not being preoccupied is in itself a great mood enhancer.
And then, of course, there’s the food, sunshine and wine.